A Tour of Bruges, Ypres, Waterloo

Recently returned from an art and military tour, starting with Bruges. A gem, which had the good fortune to miss WW2. The Groeninge Museum of Flemish ‘Primitives’ must house the greatest concentration of masterpieces of any age. The Church of our Lady has Michelangelo’s fabulous Madonna and Child (‘Bruges Madonna’) which is here also by good fortune. It was commissioned for Siena cathedral, but Michelangelo flogged it to a couple of brothers from Bruges, possibly because Siena was gazumped. They gave it to the church where it can now be seen. It was nicked by Napoleon, and then Hitler. Dictators have a habit of acquiring things that aren’t theirs. From Bruges we went to Ypres. Over dinner we discussed important historical topics, as is our wont, like chateau generalship, the causes of WW1 and the Kaiser’s instability. Was his insecurity the result of his withered arm, caused by a botched delivery at birth? In which case is WW1 the surgeon’s fault? Is WW2 the fault of the admissions tutor of the Vienna Art Academy who thought Hitler’s picture postcard paintings puerile? And so Hitler turned his hand to something he was good at, genocide. Discuss.

Waterloo is a favourite battlefield (if it is not indecent to have favourite killing grounds) because it is as it was left in 1815. Apart from the Lion Mound. ‘They have ruined my battlefield!’ exclaimed Wellington when he saw it. Note ‘my’ battlefield. His acknowledgement of the Prussian contribution was grudging at best, and his insistence that Sibourne remove the Prussians from his famous model of the battle shows the same sort of churlishness Monty showed Ike and the Yanks.

There is plenty to discuss at dinner (we had bibulous friends), including Napoleon’s lethargy and Ney’s febrile incompetence (were both suffering post-traumatic stress?), and the reasons Napoleon lost.

I buy the Correlli Barnett/ John Keegan thesis – he was always careless with detail, was lucky that his opponents were mostly incompetent, and fought a chateau general’s battle adrift from the battlefield, and deservedly lost. Wellington was at the sharp end of battle throughout the day (20 of his aides were killed or wounded riding next to him), prepared himself meticulously (both physically and mentally) and deservedly won. Napoleon’s legacy was misery. He destroyed 350,000 of his own men in a senseless invasion of Russia (a lesson Hitler forgot) and then had the gall to raise another army to fight the Allies who had quite rightly ganged up against him. Beaten at Leipzig, exiled to Elba, he knew no shame, escaped and plunged his people back into the misery of the ‘100 Days’ and the bloody defeat of Waterloo. An ogre. And when he was caught trying to sneak off to America, brought back to Plymouth Sound on HMS Bellerophon, he had the temerity to write to Prinny demanding that he be allowed to live the life of an English country gent! St. Helena was his destiny, it always was, the destiny of a man unable to grasp his own or his army’s limitations.

Napoleon as he liked to see himself, with laurel leaves. Typically at Waterloo he rode a white horse and was in Imperial attire. Wellingon dressed in civvies and rode his chestnutCopenhagen. Just before the battle, Wellington had been reading the society pages of The Times and chuckling at the antics of the ladies he had probably known biblically (he was a notorious rake).